John ROUTLEDGE 1918 – 1944      

1515005 Gunner John Routledge, 85 Anti-tank Regiment, Royal Artillery died 12 September 1944 aged 26.  He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial [1] and the West Auckland War Memorial.

Family Details

John Routledge was born 29 June 1918 [2] at Longtown, Cumberland.[3] In 1921, John lived with his grandfather, parents William & Helen, half-brother Thomas Head and siblings Isabella, William, George, Clarence, Mary, Gordon, and Malcolm [4] at Albert Street, Longtown.[5]  In 1939, John lived with his parents William and Helen at 12 Moor Road, Longtown, Cumberland and his 4 siblings Isabelle aged 31, Clarence aged 26, Margaret aged 14 and Irene aged 11.  John then aged 21, worked as a painter.[6]  In 1941, he married Doreen Gilbey from St. Helen’s Auckland.[7]

In 1939, John’s future wife Doreen [born 11 July 1920] lived at 2 Peases Street, St. Helen’s with parents Thomas and Kathleen Gilbey and brother Robert Edmund [born 5 April 1922].  She worked as laundry maid.[8]  John and Doreen’s registered address was Leazes Terrace, St. Helen’s at the time of probate, March 1946. [9]

In 1950, Doreen Routledge married Frank Wilson.[10]

Military Details [11]

The service details of 1515005 Gunner John Routledge have not been researched but the following information is derived from a number of sources and provides an account of his war time service.

  • Date unknown, possibly October 1940: John Routledge enlisted into the Royal Artillery being given the regimental number 1515005.
  • 23 September 1941: The 85th Anti-Tank Regiment RA was formed.  The regiment comprised 4 anti-tank batteries, 45, 251, 270 and 281 and it was equipped with 36 x 2 pounders.  It was commanded by Lt. Col. Andrew John Lardner-Clarke.  The 85th was stationed at Clacton-on-Sea (Butlin’s Holiday Camp) during October and November 1941.  John trained to be a gunner.
  • 10 November 1941: The 85th was not immediately posted to Malay Command. When they boarded the Narkunda on November 11 in Scotland, two sources say their secret destination was Basra, Iraq.[12] A 3rd source states that the 85th were destined for Bombay (November 11 Narkunda destination Bombay, subsequently changed to Singapore. November 18 reverted to Bombay. December 17 confirmed Bombay and December 18 Narkunda’s destination was altered to Singapore).[13]
  • 18 December: Based on Munro’s research, it is suggested that the 85th was posted to Malay Command on December 18 or shortly thereafter.

The Malay Command [14]

The Malay Command was a formation of the British Army established in 1920’s for the coordination of the defences of British Malaya, consisting of 5 small garrison forces in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Taiping, Seremban and Singapore.  With the outbreak of the Second World War, the command was reinforced by units from India.  18 November 1940:  It was placed under the command of the British Far East Command and the short lived South West Pacific Command which was disbanded 15 February 1942 with the surrender of all Commonwealth forces upon the conclusion of the Battle of Singapore.  In November 1940, the total strength of the Malaya Command was 17 battalions. 85th AT Regiment formed part of the reinforcements which arrived between January and February 1942.

  • 11 November 1941: The 85th AT Regiment boarded the converted P & O ocean liner SS Narkunda at Greenock, Scotland on the River Clyde as part of “Winston Special” convoy WS 12Z.  The convoy set sail just before midnight 12 November.
  • 25 November: The convoy arrived at Freetown, Sierra Leone and left 28 November bound for Durban, South Africa.
  • 7 December: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and invaded the Philippines the next day.  When Japanese forces invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, GOC Malaya, with a force of 88,600 faced the 70,000 strong 25th Army of the Imperial Japanese Army under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita.[15]

8 December 1941: The Invasion of Malaya and the Battle of Singapore: 8 – 15 February 1942: a summary [16]

The Japanese onslaught through the Malay Peninsula took everybody by surprise. Speed was of the essence for the Japanese, never allowing the British forces time to re-group. This was the first time British forces had come up against a full-scale attack by the Japanese. Any thoughts of the Japanese fighting a conventional form of war were soon shattered. The British had confidently predicted that the Japanese would attack from the sea. This explained why all the defences on Singapore pointed out to sea. It was inconceivable to British military planners that the island could be attacked any other way – least of all, through the jungle and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula. But this was exactly the route the Japanese took.

As the Japanese attacked through the Peninsula, their troops were ordered to take no prisoners as they would slow up the Japanese advance. For the British military command in Singapore, war was still fought by the “rule book”.  The attack on Singapore occurred almost at the same time as the attack on the US Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.  Britain’s naval presence at Singapore was strong. A squadron of warships was stationed there led by the modern battleship “Prince of Wales” and the battle cruiser “Repulse”.

8 December 1941:  Both vessels put out to sea and headed north up the Malay coast to where the Japanese forces were landing.

9 December 1941:  The RAF lost nearly all of its front line aeroplanes after the Japanese attacked RAF airfields in Singapore.  Any hope of aerial support was destroyed before the actual attack on Singapore had actually begun.

10 December 1941:  The battleship “Prince of Wales” and the battle cruiser “Repulse” were sunk by repeated attacks from Japanese torpedo bombers. The RAF could offer the ships no protection as their planes had already been destroyed by the Japanese. The loss of both ships had a devastating impact on morale in Britain.

Only the army could stop the Japanese advance on Singapore. It was led by Lieutenant General Arthur Percival. He had approximately 90,000 troops, British, Indian and Australian units. The Japanese advanced with 65,000 men led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

11 & 12 December 1941:  At the Battle of Jitra in Malaya, the Allied forces were soundly beaten and were in full retreat. The Japanese attack was based on speed, ferocity and surprise. Captured wounded soldiers were killed where they lay. Those who were not injured but had surrendered were also murdered.  Some captured Australian troops were doused with petrol and burned to death. Locals who had helped the Allies were tortured before being murdered. The brutality of the Japanese soldiers shocked the British.

11 January 1942:  The Japanese captured Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya.

All the indications were that the Japanese would attack Singapore across the Johor Strait. General Wavell, the British commander in the region, was ordered by Churchill to fight to save Singapore and was ordered not to surrender until there had been “protracted fighting” in an effort to save the city.

31 January 1942:  British and Australian forces withdrew across the causeway that separated Singapore from Malaya.  It was clear that this would be their final stand. Percival spread his men across a 70-mile line, the entire coastline of the island. This proved to be a mistake. Percival had overestimated the strength of the Japanese. This tactic spread out his men far too thinly.

8 February 1942:  The Japanese attacked across the Johor Strait.  Many Allied soldiers were simply too far away to influence the outcome of the battle. 23,000 Japanese soldiers attacked Singapore. They advanced with speed and ferocity. At the Alexandra Military Hospital, Japanese soldiers murdered patients.  Percival kept many men away from the Japanese attack fearing that there would be Japanese attacks elsewhere along the coastline. He was criticised for failing to reinforce those troops involved in direct fighting but it is now generally accepted that this would not have changed the final outcome.  It may only have prolonged the fighting.

14 February 1942:  The Japanese captured Singapore’s reservoirs and pumping stations. The bombing, fighting and heavy shelling continued; many of the Allied troops, separated from their units, wandered around aimlessly and the hospitals were crowded and overflowing.

15 February 1942:  General Percival called for a ceasefire and made the difficult decision to surrender. He signed the surrender document that evening at the Ford Factory on Bukit Timah Road. After days of desperate fighting, all British Empire troops were ordered to lay down their arms at 8.30 that night. More than 100,000 troops became prisoners of war together with hundreds of European civilians who were interned.  The fall of Singapore was a humiliation for the British government and Churchill was furious.

85th Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery [17]

The regiment formed part of the reinforcements which arrived between January and February 1942, timeline, as follows:

  • 18 December: Convoy WS12Z arrived at Durban.  There were many changes to the loads and destinations of the ships while in Durban.[18]
  • 24 December: Convoys WS12Z-A (Aden), WS12Z-B (Bombay) and WS12Z-M (Malaya) depart Durban. The ships in Convoy WS12Z-M, headed to reinforce Singapore, are the SS Narkunda, MV Aorangi, MV Sussex and MS Abbekerk. The Narkunda and Aorangi carry the men. The Sussex and Abbekerk carry supplies, equipment and ammunition.[19]
  • 30 December:  USS Mount Vernon (AP-22) joins convoys WS12Z-A, WS12Z-B and WS12Z-M at 0832 (GMT +4).  At 1000, USS Mount Vernon, escort HMS Emerald and WS12Z-M detach and become Convoy DM 1. Convoy DM 1 headed for Maldives.[20]
  • 4 January 1942:  Convoy DM 1 arrives Port ‘T’ Addu Atoll, Maldives.[21]
  • 5 January 1942 – Convoy DM 1 departs Port ‘T’
  • 9 January 1942 – 1300 HMS Durban joins DM 1[22]
  • 10 January 1942 – Convoy DM1 1200 Latitude 5° 13′ S Longitude 100° 8′ E
  • 11 January 1942 – Convoy DM 1 passes through Sunda Strait [23]
  • 12 January 1942 – Convoy DM 1 passes through Bangka Strait [24]
  • 13 January 1942: SS Nakunda reached Keppel Harbour, Singapore and the 85th AT Regiment was transported to Birdwood Barracks near Changi.
  • 14 January: 85th AT Regiment was attached to the 11 Indian Brigade and moved some 50 miles north to Jahore Baru and began the defence of Singapore.
  • 15 January: Called into action at a rubber plantation just north of the Sultan of Johore’s palace.  The action lasted for a week.
  • 5 February: 85th AT Regiment was sent to guard the RAF base at Selatar.
  • 6 February: The RAF base was evacuated and the regiment withdrew to the residential district of Mount Pleasant in Singapore city.
  • 13 February:  the 85th set up defensive positions at Halifax Road.
  • 15 February 1942: The Singapore Garrison capitulated and POWs were marched to Changi Prison.

85th AT Regiment RHQ Oct 1941 from WW2Talk a

RHQ, 85th Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery [25]

Young's 85th AT Oct 41 - RHQ photo - Routledge Jack R3 No 3

1515005 Gunner John Routledge, 85 Anti-tank Regiment, Royal Artillery

Gunner J. Routledge was captured at Singapore, probably 15 February 1942. [26]

11 October 1942, is a date on the roll to show men who made the journey overland by train from Singapore to Thailand.[27] This was a 5-days/4 nights journey in a packed cattle car. The men had to take turns to lie down and had to have someone hold on to them as they hung out the open door to defecate.[28] Details of his time at the Railway Camps has not been researched as yet.

4 September 1944, after surviving his work on the Death Railway Camps, Gunner J. Routledge was deemed to be fit enough by the Japanese to be transported Formosa (now Taiwan).[29]  About 1300 Australian and British POWs boarded the vessel, “Rakuyo Maru”, However, the ship and Gunner J. Routledge did not make it.

12 September 1944, Gunner J. Routledge died.  He was being held on the Japanese vessel “Rakuyo Maru” known to the POWs as a “hellship” which was torpedoed by a US submarine, “USS Sealion II” or “USS Growler” off the island of East Hainan, China in the South China Sea.[30] British and Australian POWs were aboard.  The following details of the “Hell Ships” is provided: [31]

“The Japanese transported prisoners of war great distances across their empire.  The worst and most dangerous period in a prisoner’s life was travelling in captivity.  Over-crowding, sickness, disease and the dangers posed by Allied submarines caused much stress and anxiety. Conditions on board these ships were severe: over 1000 prisoners might be crammed into spaces suitable for a few hundred and given little food, fresh water or adequate sanitation facilities.  Some journeys lasted just a few days but the longest was a voyage from Singapore to Japan which took 70 days (this was the Rashin Mary, known to the prisoners as the “Byoke Maru” or sick ship).  The prisoners called these transports “hellships”.

The Rakuyo Maru was part of convoy HI-72, transporting 1,317 Australian and British POWs from Singapore to Formosa (now Taiwan).  Another ship in the convoy was, “Kachidoki Mary” which was carrying 950 Allied POWs and 1.095 Japanese passengers.  The convoy was attacked in the Luson Strait by a wolfpack of 3 US submarines, USS Growier, USS Pampanito and USS Sealion.  Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed by USS Sealion or USS Growler and sunk.  Japanese survivors were rescued by an escort vessel, leaving POWs in the water with rafts and abandoned boats.  A total of 1,159 POWs died.  350 of the dead were bombarded in lifeboats and killed by a Japanese navy vessel the next day when they were rowing towards land.

On 15 September, the 3 submarines returned to the area and rescued 149 POWs.  They were landed at Tanapag Harbour, Saipan in the Mariana Islands.[32]


“Rakuyo Maru”

Commemorations [33]

Gunner John Routledge is commemorated at column 29, Singapore Memorial.   The cemetery is 22 km north of the city of Singapore.  There was a cemetery located at Changi POW camp but the graves were moved to Kranji in 1946.  There are 4,458 Commonwealth Second World War burials at Kranji War Cemetery.  Within the cemetery stands the Singapore Memorial bearing the names of over 25,000 casualties of the Commonwealth land and air forces who have no known grave.

Gunner John Routledge appears on the Rakuyo Maru Roll of Honour.[34]





I am indebted to Bruno Zaoral for providing detailed information.

Suggested Further Reading:

“Lost Souls of the River Kwai” 2006 Bill Reed

“Life on the Death Railway” 2013 Stuart Young

“The Winston Specials: Troopships via the Cape 1940-1943” 2006 Archie Munro


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] UK Allied Prisoners of War 1939-1945 & England & Wales Birth Index 1916-2007 Vol.10b p.951 1918Q3 Longtown, Cumberland

[3] Japanese Index card WO345, “Place of Origin”

[4] Ancestry family tree

[5] 1921 Census (taken 19 June 1921) details from Bruno Zaoral email April 2022.

[6] 1939 England & Wales Register

[7] England & Wales Marriage Index 1916-2005 Vol.10a p.511 1941Q4 Durham Western

[8] 1939 England & Wales Register

[9] England & Wales National Probate Calendar [Index of Wills & Administrations] 1858-1995, date of probate 8 March 1946.

[10] England & Wales Marriage Index 1916-2005 Vol.1a p.1818 1950Q1 Durham Western

[11],_Royal_Artillery unless otherwise stated.  Thanks to Bruno Zaoral of the ELTZ Group who researched the wiki page.

[12] “Lost Souls of the River Kwai” 2006 Bill Reed p.9 & “Life on the Death Railway” 2013 Stuart Young p.18 (Crates marked “RAF Habbaniyah” (Iraq).

[13] “The Winston Specials: Troopships Via the Cape, 1940-43” book by Archie Munro p.230




[17] Additional details provided by Bruno Zaoral, some with specific references.

[18] “The Winston Specials: Troopships via the Cape 1940-1943” Archie Munro 2006 & Liskeard Maritime Books p.230 &231

[19] ADM199-1138

[20] ADM199-1138

[21] USS Mount Vernon Deck Log

[22] ADM53/11580 Durban Deck Log

[23] ADM53/11580

[24] ADM53/11580

[25] “Life on the Death Railway” Stuart Young, Jack Routledge is 3rd from left, 3rd row. Courtesy of Stuart Young’s son and Bruno Zaoral

[26]WO361 Casualties and Missing Personnel 1939-1945 Note: Japanese Card Index records 17 February 1942

[27] WO361-2187 Roll records Gnr.J. Routledge 85AT, OVL (Overland train) with dates 11.10.42 & 4/9/44

[28] “Changi Photographer: George Aspinall’s Record of Captivity” Tim Bowden p.97-102

[29] WO361-2187 Roll records Gnr.J. Routledge 85AT, OVL (Overland train) with dates 11.10.42 & 4/9/44

[30] Bruno Zaoral Note: states USS Sealion II fired torpedoes.
Note: states that USS Growler fired the torpedoes. Some websites say Sealion II and some say Growler


[32]  A full account can be read at:

[33] CWGC